Cotton panel showing Volunteer review, 1783

Sat, Jun 30, 2012, 01:00

A history of Ireland in 100 objectsIn November 1783 Edward Clarke, proprietor of the Irish Furniture, Cotton and Linen Warehouse on Werburgh Street in Dublin, advertised for sale “a Volunteer furniture, with an exact representation of the Last Provincial Review in Phoenix Park, with a striking likeness of Lord Charlemont as reviewing General and every other matter fully represented that was worth observation at that Review”.

That images of the Volunteers like this one, produced by Thomas Harpur in Leixlip, were desirable consumer goods for the well-to-do is a mark of the political ferment of the decade.

The Volunteer movement began in 1778, during the American War of Independence. France joined the war on the side of the colonists, and there were fears it might attempt to invade Ireland. The island was stripped of regular troops, who were sent to fight in America. This left the administration with little choice but to encourage the formation of Volunteer corps – very much as the lesser of two evils. As Lord Charlemont, the commander-in-chief seen here, put it: “They feared and consequently hated the Volunteers, yet to them alone they looked for . . . safety.” By late 1779, 40,000 men were under arms, half of them in Ulster.

Charlemont, the Volunteer figurehead, was also the leader of the so-called Patriot faction in the Irish House of Lords, and a supporter of the opposition leaders Henry Flood and Henry Grattan.

This faction was not innately revolutionary: it took Ireland’s connection to Britain for granted. But it did want more local control over Irish affairs, especially in relation to Westminster’s limitations on Irish trade. It opposed in particular two pieces of legislation. Poynings’ Law allowed the privy council in London to alter legislation passed by the (entirely Protestant) Irish parliament. The Declaratory Act gave Westminster itself the right to legislate for Irish affairs.

The Volunteers were men of property and (initially) Protestants. But they were radicalised by the very war that led to their formation. American demands for independence resonated with Irish colonial grievances. They were also democratically organised, with officers being elected and some big landowners serving as privates. And they quickly discovered their political muscle: in 1779, after demonstrations by the armed Volunteers, London lifted restrictions on the export of wool, glass and other goods from Ireland.

Success bred larger demands: in February 1782, the year of the parade shown here, the Volunteer convention in Dungannon passed motions demanding legislative and judicial independence for Ireland and relaxation of the Penal Laws. In May the gradual dismantling of the Penal Laws began, and in June the Declaratory Act and Poynings’ Law were repealed.

But the Volunteers, and their liberal Protestant supporters, then faced the hardest question of all: what about the Catholic majority? While Belfast radicals pushed for Catholics to be given the vote, conservatives in parliament and the Volunteers took fright. The French Revolution of 1789 upped the stakes for both sides. The Belfast Volunteers hailed it as “the Hope of this World”. Establishment liberals, on the other hand, drew back from the cause of “liberty”. The gulf between radicalism and reaction became dangerously wide.

Thanks to Lar Joye and Alex Ward


Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie

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